US Renewable Energy Tops Record in 2012

Wind energy production increased by 16 percent in the United States from 2011 to 2012.Credit: S.R. Lee Photo Traveller | Shutterstock

Wind energy production increased by 16 percent in the United States from 2011 to 2012.
Credit: S.R. Lee Photo Traveller | Shutterstock

By Laura Poppick, Staff Writer

LiveScience.com  July 30, 2013

Renewable energy production hit an all-time high in the United States in 2012, according to a recent annual energy report.

A combination of government incentives and technological innovations has helped solar and wind power grow in the United States in recent years, the report suggests. From 2011 to 2012, production increased by 49 percent and wind energy increased by 16 percent, according to a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory annual energy analysis published earlier this month.

“I attribute the steady growth to technological advancements as well as tax incentives and state mandates for renewable energy,” said A.J. Simon, an energy analyst at LLNL, who wrote the report. “I would expect this to continue for a while.”

 

Though the trend is notable, wind and solar energy combined still accounted for only about 2 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption in 2012. Denmark and Spain, in comparison, produced an average of about 30 percent of their energy from wind power last year. [Power of the Future: 10 Ways to Run the 21st Century]

Oil and natural gas accounted for the majority of energy consumption in the United States, and will likely continue to dominate given recent investments in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” Simon said. Fracking is the forceful injection of water, sand and chemicals deep into shale rock that releases previously trapped oil and gas deposits.

By opening up reservoirs of cheap and accessible fossil fuels, fracking could slow efforts to expand renewable energy, though this remains uncertain, according to Simon.

‘Potential game-changer’

Still, those involved in solar and wind energy production in the United States remain confident that these alternative options will continue to grow despite advancements in fracking.

“The turbines are capturing more energy and [the wind industry] is managing to keep costs low,” said Jason Cotrell, the manager of wind turbine technology and innovation with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Recent efforts to improve wind power have focused on making the turbines taller so that they reach stronger air currents higher above the ground. This would allow wind farms to expand to areas that have previously been unsuitable for turbines due to low ground-level wind speeds.

“That would be the potential game-changer, when every state in the U.S. could benefit from wind,” Cotrell said.

Solar oversupply

Solar power has also benefitted from new innovations, but its recent success stems largely from a global oversupply of photovoltaic cells. The combined effects of the economic downturn in 2008 and overambitious renewable policies around the world resulted in an abundance of panels and a relatively small market, according to Tom Kimbis, vice president of Solar Energy Industries Association.

At this point, Kimbis said, expanding the reach of solar energy depends more on the price of the panels than improving their efficiency.

“The efficiency of the panels is now good,” Kimbis said. “The industry has been working to improve efficiency of solar cells for decades and it’s easy to buy a solar module with a 20 percent or higher efficiency today. That’s not really the issue right now. The issue that people care about is how much will it cost and will it work for them.”

Costs depend largely on government tax incentives, which vary from state to state and from year to year. Cotrell and Kimbis both believe that current work in innovating solar and wind power will continue to reduce baseline prices and increase the prevalence of renewable energy in the United States.

Follow Laura Poppick on Twitter. Follow LiveScience on Twitter,Facebook and Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

Facebook looks to the future with Prineville ‘cold storage’ facility

Facebook's data center in Prineville. The main data halls are in the center of the picture. The cold storage facility is the L-shaped building on the lower right. (Facebook photo)

Facebook’s data center in Prineville. The main data halls are in the center of the picture. The cold storage facility is the L-shaped building on the lower right. (Facebook photo)

 

By Mike Rogoway, The Oregonian 
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July 25, 2013

Facebook users post 350 million photos on a typical day. On a holiday, like Christmas or New Year’s Eve, they post more than a billion.

Altogether, Facebook now hosts more than 250 billion photos — and it’s seeking new technologies to store those old pictures efficiently and reliably at its data centers in Prineville and elsewhere around the world.

“These are the precious memories of people around the world,” said Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice president of infrastructure. “We can’t lose them.”

Parikh was in Portland today to deliver a keynote address at OSCON, the annual O’Reilly Open Source Convention at the Oregon Convention Center. He spoke about the company’s “Open Compute Project,” an effort to build collaboration among data center operators to improve performance and efficiency.

Facebook says 82 percent of its traffic is focused on just 8 percent of its photos, generally the most recent posts. It plans to put older images into “cold storage,” data centers that host older photos in more efficient — albeit a bit less speedy — facilities.

Data centers use enormous volumes of energy. Facebook’s Prineville facility consumed as much electricity last year as 13,000 homes.

If Facebook can store photos more efficiently, it can substantially cut its energy use, operating costs and environmental impact.

OSCON back again in 2014 and 2015

The O’Reilly Open Source Convention will return to Portland in 2014 and again in 2015.

The state’s largest annual tech conference attracts more than 3,000 people to the Oregon Convention Center each year. It first came to Portland in 2003, then moved to San Jose in 2009. The following year, Portland signed a four-year deal to bring OSCON back.

That deal expires this year, but OSCON says it plans to return next year and in 2015. Next year’s conference will run July 20-24.

The cold storage concept isn’t new. Parikh talked about it early last winter, and I wrote about it in February after visiting the cold storage construction site in Prineville.

On Wednesday, Parikh offered more detail about Facebook’s vision for the future. Construction on its Prineville cold storage facility is due to wrap up this fall, he said in a conversation following his OSCON keynote. Substantial testing will follow, he said, before it begins hosting older photos.

Each cold storage data hall will hold 1 exabyte of data — equivalent to 1 million of the 1 terabyte hard drives now common in PCs. Facebook will fill each cold storage data hall with 500 racks of servers.

Most of those servers will be idle most of the time. Facebook will keep just a small number of hard drives running, and spin up additional ones when it needs to retrieve the photos they store from cold storage.

Waking up those hard drives is a slow, energy-intensive process. Parikh said Facebook hopes a new technology will emerge that’s both faster and more efficient. He calls it “cold flash.”

It’s the same flash memory technology that stores the songs on your smartphone, and the documents you carry around on a thumb drive.

Cold flash, Parikh said, would be a low-grade, high-capacity storage technology. It wouldn’t need the durability that flash memory in a thin laptop requires — most of the cold storage material stored on it would sit unused forever.

It will likely be a year or two before anyone develops suitable flash memory, Parikh said. And perhaps it’s impossible to do it at a price that would be cost-effective for Facebook.

But through its Open Compute efforts, Parikh said he hopes to demonstrate that Facebook and others would provide an eager customer base for whoever invents cold flash.

All kinds of businesses, he said, need electronic cold storage for old records they may never need — but must retain, just in case.

“Write once,” he said. “Read never.”

— Mike Rogoway; twitter: @rogoway; phone: 503-294-7699